Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube, Twitter – in addition to all holding spots in the top ten of the most trafficked websites in the entire world, they all rely entirely on user-generated content. That fact speaks to how our world interacts with the internet these days. Users are not only willing, but eager to put huge pieces of themselves and their identity out there for public consumption. As people have become increasingly comfortable with revealing themselves online, the question becomes - can we use this information to make accurate predictions about a person's behavior offline?
For some, the thought of doing so is not only flawed, it's seen as invasive and inaccurate. In a NY Times piece, “Living In The Cult of Likability,” author Bret Easton Ellis espouses on our growing obsession with branding ourselves positively online, and how it is sanitizing the human experience. As the sharing economy grows and users get rated just as much as businesses do, he poses the question, “Will the reputation economy put an end to the culture of shaming or will the bland corporate culture of protecting yourself by “liking” everything — of being falsely polite just to be accepted by the herd — grow stronger than ever?”
In posing the question, it’s clear that he’s already made up his mind. As we become more aware of the fact that we’re being rated by our social media footprint just as much as we are rating others (on Yelp, Uber, AirBNB, etc.), we will let fear of judgment dictate our actions online, and treat our social media as nothing more than a glorified resume, meant to present an idealistic version of ourselves.
Where Ellis gets it wrong is in his confusion between shaming someone versus holding them accountable. The reputation economy is not meant to shame others who hold differing viewpoints or alternative lifestyles. It is, however, meant to hold people accountable for what they say and do. Social media is not a shroud of secrecy that was created to enable us to be our true, flawed, offensive self behind closed doors. It’s not a right to be able to maintain anonymity when using hate speech, flaunting drug use, making terrorist threats, etc. Why should the virtual us not be faced with the same scrutiny and standards that the real us is held to when we step away from our computer?
Ellis maintains that in mining people’s social media to get a sense of who they are, we’re encouraging people to strip away their own humanity and fallibility, in order to make them more appealing to corporations and the world at large. It’s important to keep in mind that social media, and how you choose to engage with it, is ultimately a choice. Just like acting polite to a waiter or a bus driver is a choice. Is conforming to social norms in public settings sanitizing us as people? I’d like to think that people refrain from engaging in hate speech or expressing violent misogynistic thoughts not out of fear of getting caught, but out of a sense of civility, decency, and humanity. However, if adding an extra layer of accountability will curb this behavior, is that necessarily a bad thing?
With each passing year, the line between the true us and the online us becomes increasingly blurred. The main difference between who we are in real life vs. who we are online, is that we have more control over how we’re presenting ourselves online. It’s that very notion that makes the negativity we discover on social media that much more damming. We’ve all said something we regret in the heat of the moment, but social media requires us to really think things through before hitting “post” and transmitting it out into the world. Not only do we have to put more effort behind crafting our thoughts, but we then have the ability to take them down once cooler heads have prevailed, or the whiskey has worn off. So, if someone has deemed it acceptable to, for example, tweet about violence towards women, and left it up for the world to see, isn’t it those people, the ones with no comprehension of just how offensive their sentiment is, the ones that pose the biggest risk?
If all this info about people is out there and available, why is it considered righteous to ignore it? A century ago, before fingerprints or police databases, it was exponentially harder for law enforcement to do their jobs. Their impression of a person was limited to what they saw before them at that very moment. As science and technology advanced, our misdeeds and crimes became attached to our names and followed us for the rest of our lives. You’d be hard-pressed to find people who would argue that the inability to rape and murder without repercussions has been an unfortunate detriment to our society and our individualism. The internet is merely an evolution in this ability to further hold people accountable.
Once it became easier to access someone’s criminal history, it was a no-brainer to incorporate that history into important decisions such as hiring. Thus, background checks became a staple of most corporations. But background checks only tip us off to extreme cases of arrests and other legal issues. The same things that make someone an undesirable roommate, babysitter, or co-worker, aren’t necessarily the same things that make someone a criminal. But just because something is legal, doesn’t mean it should be ignored. Tweeting an insensitive racist joke is well within your legal right, but it’s impact on a company and that company’s reputation is undeniable.
Some speculate as to whether social media is a good indicator of human behavior in the workplace. To anyone who poses that question, I implore him or her to ask the same question about interviews. Almost all of us are capable of putting on our job interview mask and saying all the right things when we’re under the microscope. Social media allows us to see what a person is like when they’ve let their guard down.
In order to understand the value of Fama, you need not look any further than your own network of social media friends and followers. When scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed, we all have at least one “friend” who consistently posts things that makes our eyes roll or our brows furrow. Now imagine that you know nothing about this person beyond their resume, and they are seated across from you, interviewing for a job at your firm. Would you rather have a wealth of information about offensive things this person has said publicly, or speak with them in person for an hour? If you’re looking for a clear representation of who a person truly is, basing that evaluation exclusively on an interview is like judging an entire city based solely on a dining experience at its nicest restaurant.
Fama represents an evolution in hiring practices. As more of our life and activity transfers to the online world, tools need to be put in place to monitor how we behave in that world. The internet is not international waters that allows us to say and do whatever we want with impunity. If you can’t stand behind something you post on social media, then perhaps you need to take a step back and question if it’s worth posting at all. We are our online identity, and there is no logical reason that that identity shouldn’t be held to the same standard we are IRL.